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The Pyrrhic Victory Of Expelling The U.S. Military


August 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

In politics, timing is often everything and what seemed smart yesterday can become untenably dumb in the light of new circumstances. Consider the case of those U.S. politicians from Pataki to Kennedy to Al Sharpton, who in the recent past, rushed to Puerto Rico to embrace what seemed to be the politically fashionable cause of Vieques.

After all, here was what seemed to be a chance to gain favor with the Puerto Rican vote in the U.S. on an issue that was unimportant to the American voter. Then comes 9/11 and the mood in America shifted dramatically to a sense of heightened patriotism and support for the U.S. military. In this changed and charged atmosphere, the last thing any U.S. politician can afford is to look unpatriotic or non supportive of the U.S. military. So the giant sucking sound you might have heard was the sudden disappearance of all those U.S. politicians hurriedly retreating from anything that might look like subtracting support for a needed military base.

It so happened that for better or worse, the issue had been resolved. It now appears definite that the Navy will leave Vieques and Roosevelt Roads and re-locate to new training facilities in the U.S. It is also apparent that the Army will leave Ft. Buchanan in favor of a stateside location. These departures will predictably be trumpeted as a triumph by the separatist forces on the island. And in a sense they are right, for the departures were really expulsions—forced—not just by the separatists—but by the well publicized majority will of the Puerto Rican people, including many statehooders. To its credit, the U.S. eventually responded to this local pressure, noting—as President Bush said, "these people don’t want us down there."

But never mind for a moment how these departures will be viewed through the insular blinders on the island. The more critical question is, how will they be viewed in the U.S.? Living in New England, I have a better sense of the U.S. than most in P.R., and I can report that this situation has all the earmarks of a Pyrrhic Victory—where the long-term losses far exceed the apparent gains.

The first loss is the cherished notion that the island is of vital strategic importance to the U.S. Many islanders have long used that belief to rationalize the many economic benefits received from the U.S. The departure of the Army and Navy proves that whatever military importance P.R. may once have had, it is now deemed dispensable, and lesser than the nuisance of political unrest and bad publicity that U.S. military presence generated. The second loss is the significant economic impact that will be felt by the absence of the Army and Navy, a subtraction that is easy to dismiss but very hard to replace. More important is the removal of a cause that has long provided the separatists with an easy whipping boy. The charge that the U.S. is an insensitive and abusive military presence now rings hollow and separatists will miss not having this ready made rallying point.

But the third and most harmful loss stems from the perception of P.R.’s breach of support in time of war. Unwillingness to share in the patriotic effort that has united the rest of America sets the island apart as a foreign and almost alien element. I just attended a Strategic Review Session at the U.S. Navy War College in Newport, R.I., attended by over 300 top Navy and Marine officers. These men and women are totally involved in what they see as a complex and intense war effort. In his closing remarks the Chief of Naval Operations emphasized that this will be a long struggle, requiring patience, persistence, and a need to re-shape the U.S. military. For P.R. to remain apart from, oblivious to, and unsupportive of this national effort is a particularly dumb move at precisely the wrong time.

In conversations with some of these present and future leaders of the Navy and Marines, I can report that their attitude towards P.R.’s clamor over Vieques ranges from anger to dismissal. Since the Military establishment is not without influence in Washington, this could have implications that many on the island do not foresee.

Seen through American eyes, there is a disturbing confluence of negatives:

  • P.R. rejects U.S. Military presence in time of war
  • P.R. rejects American identity and primary loyalty to U.S.
  • P.R. rejects American flag, anthem, and pledge of allegiance
  • P.R. rejects effective instruction in English
  • P.R. rejects U.S. taxes and participation in U.S. Elections
  • P.R. costs the U.S. taxpayer billions of dollars every year

This is an imposing array of reasons why the U.S. should re-assess its relationship with P.R. History reveals that when a territory loses strategic importance to the U.S. (for example the Philippines), abrupt American withdrawal is often the result. It does not require Puerto Rico-plebiscite approval for the U.S. to pull out—it only requires sufficient Congressional disenchantment, the seeds of which are well in place and nourished by the policies of the present government. Perhaps the saddest aftermath of all this is the way the overblown issue of Vieques and the resulting orchestrated anti-Americanism has combined to overshadow and obscure the contribution of the many P.R. veterans who served in the U.S. military with honor and distinction.

The U.S. now finds itself obliged to take the lead in a worldwide struggle against terrorism. This is a task that may soon involve an all out war and invasion of Iraq. These new dangers that the country faces will automatically decrease American tolerance for those who do not share our national sense of purpose. In Congress there will be short patience and small regard for those island politicians who have benefited, along with the rest of the civilized world, from the protective umbrella of U.S. military might—but now seek to strut their nationalistic bravado by kicking Uncle Sam in the shins; bad timing and bad karma. Islanders tend to underestimate the sometimes over reactive energy of aroused American indignation in times of national threat. The recent July 4th celebrations in the U.S. could be described as paroxysms of American patriotism—indiscriminate and undoubtedly exaggerated outpourings of emotion. But that is the current national mood, and the fact that P.R. does not share that mood at all is only further evidence of the island’s emotional separation from the nation of its citizenship.

Maybe the depth of that inherent contradiction will at last dawn on the long, slumbering U.S. Congress. For the island, expelling the U.S. military may prove to be the easy part. Being out of step with the U.S. military—in time of war—could make that expulsion a classic pyrrhic victory.

Garry Hoyt lived and worked in Puerto Rico from 1955 until 1980. He resides in Rhode Island and maintains strong ties with Puerto Rico.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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